There is an increasing amount of research on gossip. Gossip can, apparently, be good and bad. Gossip can be a way for us to jostle for social standing. But gossip is not a fixed state – gossip moves along lines of communication – and as it does, it enters the land of the Chinese Whisper. That, whatever the value of the gossip, is bad, bad, bad. It may even make you wonder whether anything in the world of blogs is true.

What is gossip?
Chris Corrigan, [via Heath Row on the Fast Company Blog] led me to an article by Offra Gerstein

“The origins of gossip date to early man. Primitive societies used negative information to discredit the reputation of their rivals and defeat them. In old English, gossip evolved from “god-sibb,” referring to a close female friend present at the birth of a child, to whom she will assume the role of a godparent. This woman was the confidant and attentive listener to the new mother. Later, the term evolved to describe friends’ intimate sharing of personal information. It further expanded to the current use of evaluative talk about a third party in his or her absence.”

The key distinction for Offra is between good and bad gossip. Bad gossip is something we have been aware of for centuries. As she says, from her admittedly slightly psychotherapisty angle

“Ancient Indian mythology considers gossip a form of mental illness. Religions abhor and disallow it. Psychoanalysts report that gossip is harmful to the individual and creates many emotional difficulties such as suspicion, fear, mistrust and depression. Gossip is toxic to one’s soul and destroys friendships and relationships.”

That’s the bad gossip we all know and love But there’s good gossip too, and it’s good for groups, whether they be companies or societies.

“When a company faces bad times, gossip about the future of the employees offers a reduction of fear and uncertainty and creates camaraderie… Exchanging information between people is beneficial for creating a healthy connection, building social norms for acceptable and unacceptable behavior and improving society.”

Offra quotes Professor Frank McAndrew:

“If people are talking about good things others do, we want to emulate that good behavior. It is a nice way of socially controlling people.”

Where’s the research?
The work of Frank McAndrew and Megan Milenkovic seems to have been unearthed a number of interesting finds. According to McAndrew, “our ancestors lived in small cooperative groups that competed with other groups and within themselves for status and resources. If a strong disposition toward gossip is a part of human nature that has evolved through natural selection, then we ought to be able to make specific predictions about what types of information we would like to acquire about different types of people.” McAndrew and Milenkovic found that gossip – “negative news about [potential rivals] and positive news about allies – was especially prized and likely to be passed on. The findings confirm that gossip can serve as a strategy of status enhancement.”[The article by McAndrew and Milenkovic, Of Tabloids and Family Secrets: The Evolutionary Psychology of Gossip was published last year in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology.]

Chris Corrigan’s Rumour Test
To all this, Chris makes a very interesting point:

“When I am working with organisations who complain that they have communication problems, I always ask about gossip. I ask how long it takes for a juicy rumour to propagate through the organisation. People usually respond with some lightning fast time.

I always point out that this means that there is no communication problem, the problem is that people are just not passionate enough about issues that are “communication problems.” This always leads into nice discussions about working with more passion, rather than devising some useless set of easily broken communication commitments.”

Chinese Whispers
But there’s a problem. It’s all well and good that something can get transmitted in lightning fast time, but as Chris mentions, the dynamics of gossip are yet to be understood. What we do know, though, is that gossip can distort the message. Chinese whispers are a case in point. Let’s take a few examples.

One of the more famous Chinese Whispers happened during the First World War. The original message from the trenches to British HQ was ‘Send reinforcements, we’re going to advance’. In transit, it became ‘Send three and fourpence, we’re going to a dance.’

“CLICK HERE to upload your soul” was one of the tamer [1996] headlines seen in reports describing the “new research direction” of British Telecom’s research labs at Martlesham Heath. BT, it was reported by such authorities as The Guardian, Reuters, Time, and the Electronic Telegraph, was embarking on a huge new research project. Funded to the tune of 25 million pounds, an eight-man team was developing a “Soul Catcher” memory chip. This chip was to be implanted behind a person’s eye, and would record all the thoughts and experiences of their lifetime. But when Toby Howard asked Chris Winter, the BT researcher quoted in the press as heading the “team of eight Soul Catcher scientists”, he was told the story was pure fabrication.

“The whole story is a media invention, developed like a game of Chinese Whispers from its origins in an after-dinner press briefing Winter gave to local journalists, intending to enthuse them about the future-looking work at BT Labs. Winter’s research group had simply undertaken a “technology trend analysis” to speculate on the future capacity of silicon, and using Moore’s Law had estimated the 10 terabyte chip by 2025. To illustrate the immensity of such storage, Winter compared it with a back-of-an-envelope guesstimate of the volume of data input through a person’s sensory organs in an average 70-year lifespan — 10 terabytes. The press took it from there.”

Alternatively, John Yunker points to this fascinating article on the communication issue in the EU.

“The European Parliament will echo with up to 20 different languages when the EU expands next year, and each will be instantly translated into the others. The result is a possible 380 combinations of languages — as elected representatives from Finland to Malta make laws that will affect the lives of some 450 million European Union citizens.

And how’s this for a amazing statistic:

On any given day, parliament needs between 300 and 500 interpreters, who are usually required to be able to work from at least three foreign languages into their mother tongue.

As John comments, with this number of translators in a chain, the odds of a message being distorted soar. In fact, according to Chinese Whispers researcher Professor Kim Kirsner of UWA’s Department of Psychology,

“any event – accident, crime or political incident – will generate a huge variety of versions of what actually occurred from those who witnessed or participated in it. And as time goes on, even further distortion occurs in accounts of the event, either deliberately or by accident”

Young’s Rule of Meaningful Chit Chat
So what? Well, so this. As far as the dynamics of gossip go we know that:

  • gossip travels at lightning speed, but it tends to distort the meaning of the original message
  • this distortion can take place in life or death situations (such as the First World War)
  • this distortion can take place even when there are teams of professionals who are bound to report – or at least try – to report the facts (such as journalists)
  • and this distortion gets worse the more people in the chain of communication there are (God help us Europeans…)

In fact you can make a stab at a general hypothesis – I’m going to call mine “Young’s Rule of Meaningful Chit Chat” (ahem … out of pure vanity and the fact that I’ve always wanted my very own rule).

“the meaning contained in a message is a direct function of: the emotional impact of the original message, the number of people between you and the originator, and its context.”

Whether people hoard or share knowledge is an emotional decision, and it depends at some level on how they feel either path will affect their social standing. How they interpret that knowledge they learn about is a blend of their own world view, the social group they see they belong to, and the (hierarchical) relationship they see between them, their group, and the group the message has come from. (See e.g here and here) And perhaps the real value of trackback is they way it allows you to a)
reduce the chain length, and b) get a better feel for the context. As far as my little rule of meaningful chit chat goes, by doing both of these, trackback helps you maximise the meaning of the message.

It’s not science, of course, and it could all be bunkum. Another version of the “send three and fourpence” whisper is, er, this.

The reason why the Kaisers last big push of 1918 almost succeeded was due to the fact that from Col. Henry Wilmimgton-Bottomley read “send reinforcement, Germans advancing on west flank” It was received at British HQ as “send three and fourpence Gerdas dancing on wet plank. As Gerda was a popular German stripper of the time the three and fourpence was quickly raised after a whip round in the trenches but once the troops found out she was not dancing they became so annoyed they ‘fought with considerably more vigour’ [my paraphrase]

So I’ve no real way of knowing I haven’t just misinterpreted everything …

2 comments on “Communification”

  1. Hi Brian
    I thought it was a google image search, but have tried that with no joy. Will have a dig around and get back to you. What’s the game btw?

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